A handful of vaccine holdouts in the world’s least-inoculated continent could pose another big challenge for global efforts to end the pandemic.
Burundi, Tanzania and Eritrea have so far rejected the World Health Organization’s advice to register for Covax, an initiative to distribute vaccines to poorer countries, with some officials downplaying the impact of Covid-19 and effectiveness of jabs that have allowed several countries to begin opening up.
While Tanzania’s new president, Samia Suluhu Hassan, has now appointed an advisory council, which recommended the country join Covax, the government has yet to say whether it will follow the advice.
The danger is that while the rest of the world slowly returns to normalcy, the virus will spread in these African nations, mutating into variants that can evade current vaccines, cause deadly new waves and spread far beyond their borders.
“If you allow the virus to continue to circulate anywhere, it allows the virus to mutate,” said Shabir Madhi, a vaccinologist from Johannesburg’s University of the Witwatersrand, who led a trial of AstraZeneca’s shot in South Africa. “Those variants are going to be a consistent threat not just to those countries — but globally.”
Together, the three African holdouts have a population of about 75 million, a little smaller than Germany’s, providing an ample reservoir for mutations to develop, much as they did in England, Brazil, South Africa and India. Highly-transmissible variants first identified in those countries were later detected in different parts of the world.
And the most mutated version of the coronavirus discovered to date is believed to have come from Tanzania, where people go about their lives with minimal precautions and no shots have been ordered so far.
“They declared they had no intention to join Covax,” Phionah Atuhebwe, the WHO’s new vaccines introduction medical officer for Africa, said. “We can only continue with advocacy.”